How Marketing Funnels Work

When most companies first start making sales, it’s a lot of outbound cold calling.

It’s picking up the phone day after day, and maybe making a sale and maybe not.

And while this is a completely valid approach to take when you’re just getting your business off the ground because you don’t yet have any systems in place to bring in leads and customers for you, it’s not exactly the most efficient system out there.

Because to do sales via cold calling, you need to hire sales reps who spend their days guessing at whether or not a prospect would be a good enough lead to reach out to.

And once they’ve got a list of those people, they spend all day on the phone: leaving messages, navigating automated answering and call directing systems, guessing at extensions, getting hung up on, and only maybe having a constructive conversation with someone.

If they make one sale per day, they’re doing really well.

And while there’s something to be said about person-to-person interactions, they’re very time-heavy and do not scale at all… the more of them you do, the more man hours you have to hire and pay for to make them happen.

Which is why so many companies cling desperately to the idea of an inbound marketing and sales funnel, because for the most part, they’re fully automated.

And because they’re fully automated online, they work for you 24/7 without any active input or man hours required. (Or, you know, very little.)

So instead of outbound cold calling, setting up a marketing funnel gives you a more productive, less waste approach via inbound marketing.


The Overview of ALL Inbound Marketing Funnels

The idea behind a marketing funnel that’s designed to ultimately generate a sale is that it’s based on the decision-making mental processes that happen in a prospect’s brain before they decide to buy.

And don’t worry, that concept is way less difficult to understand than it sounds initially.

HubSpot, a company that sells software specifically designed to take care of inbound marketing automation, explains the process of an inbound marketing funnel like this:

Strangers > Visitors > Leads > Customers > Promoters.

And to get people from one stage to the next, you have to do these things, in order:

Attract > Convert > Close > Delight.


1. Attract strangers to your website so they become visitors.

2. Convert your visitors with a lead magnet so they become leads.

3. Close leads with a sale so they become customers.

4. Delight customers with great customer service and engagement so they don’t churn and become promoters.

To attract strangers to your site, you need to use things like SEO for organic traffic, blog posts with enticing content, social media engagement, and ads.

To convert visitors into leads, you need call to action forms on your landing pages and a good lead magnet that’s so valuable people will want it.

To close the leads, you need to use email messaging, CRM-based personal touches (optional), and personalized nurturing via email, web, and social.

And to delight your customers to the point of becoming brand ambassadors, you need to keep engaging them in email and social media, let them give you feedback, and provide them with stellar resources to get the most out of your product.

So now that you understand the overview of a marketing funnel, we’ll dig a little deeper into how to best relate to people at each stage of your marketing funnel to prompt them to the next stage.


1. Get More Strangers to Visit Your Site

At this stage, all you really want is for complete, total strangers of your brand to become aware of you and the value you provide. You want to build a reputation as a company that helps your target audience solve the problems they have related to the work you do.

Most likely, they’ll discover you because they’ve been triggered by a problem they’re having to do a Google search so they can learn how to solve the problem for themselves.

So to effectively draw strangers into your website, you’ll need to develop quality, keyword-rich content that’ll rank well in the search engines. Keep in mind that search engines decide on ranking based on two things:

1) backend keyword metadata

2) visitor input data showing the search engines that you’ve written content worth spending time on.

This valuable content serves as the anchor and cornerstone of your marketing funnel, because it’s where people start and it’s the first impression someone sees of you. So it’s important to make it really, really good.

Jill Stanton of Screw the Nine to Five calls this a read magnet and says it’s necessary before you ever try to get people on board with your lead magnet.

“That’s because we believe dangerously effective sales funnels don’t go for the jugular straight outta the gate,” she says in this post on creating a perfect sales funnel. “Instead, they warm a reader up first… they romance… they make it all about the reader, before ever asking for the opt-in.”

Which, by no coincidence, is exactly what she’s doing with that blog post.

She’s answering her visitors’ question about how to create a sales funnel that actually works… answering their questions fully… before she “goes for the jugular” with her lead magnet, which is copies of the emails she uses in her own sales funnels.

read magnet

Here’s Jill’s read magnet talking about how a read magnet leads to the lead magnet—which is in her sidebar. Sales funnel in action.

Other ways you can get strangers to your site include being active in relevant social media groups, guest blogging, and running ads to your content.


2. Pique the Interest of New Visitors

Once you lure the stranger from the search engine, social media group, or other website to your website, you’ll have two goals:

1. Provide ridiculous, impressive amounts of value. (With the “read” magnet discussed above.)

2. Convince them to sign up for your lead magnet.

Convincing them to sign up for your lead magnet is the second priority here, because without that value, no real trust or confidence is built.

And you need that trust and confidence in your business as a reliable resource before anyone will ever consider handing over their email address and giving you permission to flood their personal inboxes with whatever kind of information you see fit.

But once that trust is established (like with blog post on Screw the Nine to Five above), you can start asking them for their email address in exchange for something of even greater value.

To do this, you’ll need call to action buttons, call to action forms, and maybe even some custom landing pages if they’re clicking through to your offer from a guest blog post you’ve written or a specific ad campaign focused on targeting people who’ve already visited your site with ad pixels.

To help you come up ideas for your lead magnet, think of what you’d most like someone to know about your service after they come across your main piece of cornerstone content via the search engines.

“A sales funnel is a marketing system,” says Jason Clegg on Convert with Content. “It’s the ‘ideal’ process you intend your customers to experience as they go from prospect to lead to customer to repeat buyer.”

Going back to the example above, after Jill provided a bunch of value in her blog post, she put this call to action at the bottom of it for impressed readers to go one step further and receive her lead magnet, officially converting them from visitors into leads.

steal emails

This is a great example of an easy-to-create download that converts more of your site visitors into leads, moving them through your online sales funnel.

3. Funnel Your Leads into a Purchase Decision

Once someone’s signed up to receive your lead magnet, they’re on your email list and considered a lead.

NOW is when you can start thinking about how you’ll be selling to them… not before.

If selling (read: trying to collect money) happens in any of the two stages above, you’ll be jumping the gun and will probably make the people who aren’t ready to be sold to yet a little uncomfortable.

But after someone’s raised their hand and said that they want more in-depth information from you by signing up with their email to receive your lead magnet, the delivery of high-quality, helpful information doesn’t have to stop with the lead magnet.

And in fact, it shouldn’t.

Because you can assume that if they’ve gotten to this stage, they’ve also been reading and checking out the content and lead magnets of your competitors, so you’ll need the way you interact with your leads after they convert into leads to be so on-point it’s not even funny.

In fact, it might be a little sacrilege for me to say this, but this is the most important part of your funnel.

If you’re going to half-ass 3/4 of your funnel, then half ass the attract, convert, and delight stages. But give this stage—the closing leads into customers stage—the full attention it deserves.


Because this is the stage that makes you money.

And I’m by no means advocating that you half-ass any part of your funnel (not at all!), but I think you understand what I mean.

And to be honest, one of the best ways to turn leads into customers is via that email address you just collected.

The first thing you send them via that email address should obviously be that lead magnet that you promised them, but once that’s delivered, keep sending them more value.

Send them instructions on how to make the most of the lead magnet.

Send them case studies of people who’ve used the lead magnet successfully for inspiration to take action and be successful themselves.

Keep sending them things that build upon the value that you’ve been delivering, and when it makes sense, pitch them with a purchase offer.

Just make sure the purchase offer feels natural and makes sense as the logical next step.

derek halpern

Here’s an email I got from Derek Halpern after signing up for his list. Notice how he doesn’t just say “Okay, you’re subscribed!” but instead goes out of his way to make promises about all the value I can expect him to deliver?

Beyond using email autoresponders for this stage, you can enhance it with some personalized nurturing and some person-to-person touches tracked via a CRM.


4. Make Your Customers SUPER Happy to be Doing Business With You

Once someone’s a customer, they’re in.

But just because they’re in for now doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be staying for long or that they’ll buy from you again if you sell something that isn’t a subscription-based project.

So how you treat a customer after they make their first purchase is almost as important as how you treat them after they convert from a visitor to a lead. (If not more important.)

You don’t want to just make the purchase transaction and then not be in touch with them in any way.

In fact, you’ll greatly increase their satisfaction with their purchase if you continue to send them tips, insights, tutorial videos, and walkthroughs of how they can maximize the ROI on the purchase they’ve made from you.

If nothing else, at least make sure to have an onboarding email autoresponder series that walks new customers through everything they need to know and do to be successful.

To make an even bigger impact, you can proactively schedule half-hour consults with someone on your customer service team before customers reach out because they’re frustrated that something isn’t working exactly how they want it to.

For example, when I signed up for my first CRM, a member of the customer service team reached out and asked me to schedule a 30 minute call with him so he could make sure I understood all of the functionality of the tool and to answer any questions I had.

When it was clear that we weren’t going to be able to address all of my questions in that allotted 30 minutes, he invited me to schedule another 30 minute call so we could finish our discussion.

And let me say, that effort really went a long way in helping me appreciate the product that I’d just bought in to.

Because while it’s totally legitimate to be happy about more customers and want to celebrate them, marketing is hard and expensive. So you want to do whatever you can (within reason, of course) to make sure all of your hard efforts to get someone to convert don’t go to waste because they don’t feel 100% satisfied and go to your competition.

So this is why you want to delight the heck out of your customers so they won’t churn, so they’ll keep buying from you, and so they’ll feel so freaking delighted that they’ll actively and willingly recommend you to others, whether you set an incentive for them to do so or not.


When I signed up for Nimble, rather than trying to explain everything via text in an email, they pushed for me to sign up for one of their webinars to see a tutorial and ask questions. It was really helpful because I could ask questions to the call coordinator and have them answered in real time.

And beyond the onboarding, Nimble sends me an email every day with different engagement opportunities so I can stay on top of my network—making me even more loyal to their tool.

So beyond email autoresponders that provide value immediately after a purchase, you can continue to engage longer-term customers with feedback forms, special notes of thanks, occasional special offers to loyal customers “just because”, and a high level of happy, public engagement with them on your social media channels.


5. Once Customers Become Promoters, Make Them Even Happier

“Don’t think the sales process is done just because a purchase decision has been made,” said the Single Grain team in this post.

Even after someone is a dedicated, happy customer, you still need to keep your brand in front of them and at the forefront of their minds.

By doing this, you’re continually reminding them of your USP and what makes you the best in your niche.

After someone’s been turned from a customer into a promoter via a great onboarding process, you can continue to use email to keep in touch with them by letting them know every time you publish a new blog post and with occasional, special offers and referral bonuses that are exclusively available to them as customers.

Like I mentioned above with Nimble, they now send me engagement opportunities on a daily basis so I can constantly make sure I’m getting the most out of their tool.

nimble daily

Here’s an email from a day when I had a fair amount of activity on Twitter I could take advantage of.

And by keeping your customers happy and engaged like this, you can create all kinds of buzz and word of mouth in your target niches, maintain a happy and engaged social presence, get plenty of positive testimonials for social proof, and you’ll have access to an endless source of people willing to serve as case study material.


The Easiest Way to Get Started

Clearly, creating an effective online marketing funnel could take months—especially if you’re a perfectionist.

But it really doesn’t have to.

When you’re first getting started, “good enough” truly is good enough. There’s always time for perfection later.

So if I were helping someone start from absolute scratch, I’d suggest the following:

  • Create an SEO-friendly piece of content aimed at solving a major problem your target market has. Dedicate a budget to run ads and purchased traffic to this page.
  • On that piece of content, offer an “upgrade” in the form of a lead magnet.
  • At the end of your lead magnet and in the email sequence that follows its delivery, place a call to action around a purchase offer that’ll convert your leads into customers.
  • Implement a short but valuable email onboarding sequence to keep customer satisfaction high after the purchase.

Once those main four pieces are in place, you can watch your data to see how they perform and go back to do A/B tests and tweaks to optimize your conversions.

The most important part, though, is getting them in place.

So in light of helping you make the most of your own online marketing and sales funnels, is there any particular part that’s tripping you up?

If so, let us know in the comments. If you’ve got a question, you can bet someone else does too, and we’d love to write a post clearing up your questions for you.